On June 13, Sergio Raez Villanueva was one of several Marauders who took to the racetrack at Guelph University for the Speed River Inferno meet. Joining Villanueva was veteran Jeff Tweedle, who won a competitive 1500 metre race, and male rookie of the year Max Turek, who finished as the top junior in the 10,000 metre event.
Turek’s time was good enough to qualify for the International Association of Athletics Federations World U20 Championships in mid-July. However, Turek was not the only Marauder to earn a coveted spot in an upcoming event.
In a day ruled by blustering winds, Mac’s Male Athlete of the Year did not let nature slow him down. Villanueva was the first to cross the finish line in the 10,000 metre race, edging out the 2017 champion Evan Esselink with a time of 30:19.19 to become a Canadian Champion.
“I had it in mind as the goal, with my coach Paula, that we’re going to do [the race] and see how it goes,” Villanueva said. “I went into race and I knew it was going to be a really tactical race just because it was like a hurricane out there. It was really windy on the back stretch, no one really wanted to take [the wind] and risk the fact that you could burn out, getting all that wind for yourself while everybody else behind you can take shelter from that.”
This abrasive weather caused the race to take on a more tactical edge to it than a typical race, so it started off slowly as the runners got a feel for the conditions. Slow starts are not something that Villanueva particularly likes, tending to put him on edge since the race deviates from a more traditional and honest race. But this did not throw the Biology major.
“In those kind of circumstances, it’s like a chess game,” Villanueva explained. “I knew that my biggest opponent I was facing there was Evan Esselink, and I knew that he was planning on making a move of some sort halfway through the race. So it happened at the about the 6K mark, Evan just bolted to the front and put this really massive surge that caught me off guard a bit, and I just decided I got to go with this guy because if I let him go, he is gone.
Villanueva was able to maintain his lead through the finish line, resulting in an exciting finish for the racers and the fans in attendance. Although his goal was just to finish among the top group, Villanueva managed to find his place at the top of the podium.
“A lot of things go through your mind but you just got to trust in yourself,” Villanueva said. “I took the lead and stayed on the lead, and I was concerned [Esselink] was just taking advantage, sheltering from the wind to try to overtake me near the end of the race. I guess this is where the grit and the will comes into play because at that point in the race, it became ‘I can actually try and win this thing’.”
Most runners like to take the opportunity during the spring and summer seasons to take some time off, usually opting for cardiovascular exercises that are not as hard on the body as running. Villanueva, however, will have to delay his down week until after August, with this win earning himself a spot at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships.
“It was like the cherry on top because I thought that was going to be my season,” Villanueva said. “I was honoured to run there and was really excited, and even more excited afterwards when they told me this qualifies me for NACACs, to run the 10,000 metre track event there representing Canada. I’m very honoured and very proud to represent. I will give it my best shot.”
A three-day event that features participants from 31 countries compete in 40 events, the NACAC Championships will occur on Aug. 10-12 at Varsity Stadium in Toronto. Villanueva has deservedly earned himself a spot on Team Canada alongside notable Olympians such as Andre de Grasse.
“I’m really really excited, this one holds a special place” Villanueva explained. “This would be my first senior team representing Canada. I’m really thrilled. I am going to be on the same team as Olympic sprinter Andre de Grasse for example, so I am going to fan-girling on the sideline a little bit. I’m really eager and excited to just learn from them as well.”
In keeping with his genuine and optimistic nature, Villanueva did not even realize he had qualified for this amazing opportunity until someone informed him after his big win.
“This is the funny part of it – I was surprised,” Villanueva said. “I didn’t know you could qualify for it if you won the Canadian Championship. I was so focused on just the Canadian Championship itself I didn’t really think too much ahead of it. So when they told me this right after I won the race, [it was] amazing. This is an awesome opportunity, you know for me, is a very big step forward in my running career. I’ll be super excited to represent Mac in the fall of course. Don’t worry, cross-country is also in my goals as well.”
Taking place at the University of Toronto, the NACACs will not necessarily be run on his home turf, but Villanueva will surely make both Marauders and Canadians proud as he takes yet another major step forward in his burgeoning but already-decorated running career.